Ellery Queen's Murder Mysteries from the 1930's and 40's



The Spanish Cape Mystery (1935) – 5.0




I am not sure how well known the name Ellery Queen is any more, but a few decades back it was top of the line in the world of mysteries. It began back in 1929 when two authors who were cousins - Frederic Dannay and Manfred Bennington Lee - combined their writing skills under the pseudonym Ellery Queen to create mysteries about a crime writer who is also an amateur detective who solves murders. The name of the character is also Ellery Queen so it gets a bit incestuous and confusing. Over the next many years they wrote about 30 Ellery Queen novels and a bunch of short stories - but that was just the tip of the ice berg. There was also an Ellery Queen radio show (some episodes up on YouTube), films, a TV show starring Jim Hutton and they edited a long running monthly mystery anthology that has been published since 1941 to the present. My mother used to subscribe. I have never read any of their mysteries but from what I gather the initial portrayal of Queen was very much borrowed from Philo Vance even to having a pince-nez. The early books are basically puzzle mysteries – they give clues along the way for the reader to guess who the murderer is. And in the first books, the narrative stopped and asked the reader to figure it out. As the books proceeded they got rid of this and Queen became less of a pompous elitist. None of the film or TV adaptations really capture his character in the books (as neither did the ones of Philo Vance).



This appears to be the first film adaption of an Ellery Queen novel and is based on a novel of the same title. It is all a bit by the numbers and the actor Donald Cook who plays Queen makes it seem that he is a casual spectator at a tennis match - except instead of balls being hit, it is dead bodies being strangled. Queen is ready to go off on vacation with his much older male friend - which seems a little strange - but before he goes his police inspector father asks him to come over with a case he needs help on. In five minutes Queen solves the case and establishes his bonafides to the audience. Then he is off to California near a large mansion called The Spanish Cape House.



It is full of fortune hunters wanting to either marry the owner's daughter or chisel in on an aunt's inheritance. The daughter and her uncle are kidnapped and the daughter dumped into the house that Queen has rented. She is played by one of my favorite names - Helen Twelvetrees which sounds like it is right out of Lord of the Rings. But that wasn't her name but her husband's - she was from Brooklyn. Anyway, murders start happening every ten minutes or so whittling the possible suspects down rapidly. Queen keeps saying he is on vacation and he won't investigate - instead he makes fun of the sheriff. Only when the daughter calls him a phony, does he put on his thinking cap and figure it out. By then a lot of people are dead. So not really a case to be proud of. It comes in at 73 minutes which felt about ten minutes too long. Up on Youtube.

The Mandarin Mystery (1936) – 4.5

 

A so-so B mystery from Ellery Queen. Much more quip than crime, but the solution of the crime is clever. It all has to do with a missing orange. Ellery Queen was to show up in a few films in the 1930s and 40s before he disappeared until he was resurrected in a TV show in the 1950s and then the 1970s. Not that the name ever went away as it was the title in a monthly mystery digest from various authors that began in 1941 and is still going today.

 

A few different actors portrayed Queen over these films - in this one it is Eddie Quinlan whose comedy roots (was in vaudeville with his parents) show as he trades snappy dialogue with his policeman father and the girl he meets. Some of it is smarter than it probably deserves to be in a low budget film like this. But he makes for a strange almost juvenile Queen that feels miscast. Josephine Temple (Charlotte Henry) arrives by ocean liner with the most valuable stamp in the world - from China - with the intent of selling it for $50,000. Probably not the best idea to let everyone know you have it and then leave it in your purse in the hotel room while you take a shower. Sure enough it is stolen. But the man who stole it shows up dead a few minutes later in a suite of rooms with his jacket on backwards. Ellery has to wade through a number of suspects while trying his best to flirt with Josephine and manages to be both charming and rather creepy at the same time  - before he arrives at the solution. One of my favorite character actors of the time shows up as the hotel manager, who faints all the time. Who else but Franklin Pangborn. These first two Ellery Queen films were produced by Republic Pictures but they lost interest after that.

Ellery Queen, Master Detective (1940) - 6.0




There had been two Ellery Queen films before Ralph Bellamy took over the role in a series of films for Columbia Pictures in 1940. He was to star in four films altogether before the role passed on to William Gargan for three more films. Margaret Lindsay as his girl Friday and Charlie Grapewin as his police Inspector father appear in all seven films. In all the films there is also the Sergeant Velie with the lowish I.Q. played by the often seen rarely remembered character actor James Burke. And in four of the films is Charles Lane - another very familiar face from TV in the 1960's - as the sharp-tonged coroner. As a bit of trivia the first murder victim is played by Fred Niblo, who some 15 years before had directed the silent version of Ben-Hur.

 

This one is the first for Bellamy and it is a congenial mix of humor, insults and murder - none of it to be taken too seriously. I am not sure if these were considered B films but they sure feel that way. The chemistry between Bellamy and Lindsay is the real heart of the film. The mystery itself is your usual locked room murder with a household of suspects. Not bad, not good.

 

Nikki Porter (Lindsay) is suspected of a murder but Queen immediately doubts it and helps her hide out in his apartment which is also shared by his Inspector father. Porter passes herself off as the cook, a very bad one. She is also an aspiring mystery writer who tells Queen that his books - he is a crime writer as well as crime solver - are rather dull. The two of them make a nice bantering team as they work their way through the clues. It has a bit of a twist though if you have been paying attention only one person really sticks out as the potential killer. At the end, Queen takes Nikki aside and tells her he wants to ask her something - she expects a proposal of sorts - it is - to be his secretary which is what she was in the books and the films to come. But her character was first introduced on the radio show, then incorporated into the Columbia series and then into the books.


Ellery Queen’s Penthouse Mystery (1941) – 5.0

 

This is the second Ellery Queen with Ralph Bellamy as the title character. It isn't exactly an edge of your seat suspense murder case - more of a shaggy dog story with an anti-climatic ending - much like the first one, Ellery Queen Master Detective. These are for when you are in the mood just to see a few good actors go through their paces in a low budget film with no ambitions other than a few laughs and a hint of mystery.

 

This one has the added bonus of two famous actors in supporting roles. The great Anna May Wong is in this one as a Chinese agent who gets into a cat fight with Margaret Lindsay - a regular in the series of 7 films from Columbia - and Mantan Moreland as some comic relief though admittedly in a very unPC way. Mantan still always brings a smile to my face and with Anna you kind of a wince because she is so much better than many of the roles she got in Hollywood - check her out in the 1928 film Piccadilly if you ever can - a tour de force of sexual magnetism.

 

This one begins in China when a group of wealthy Chinese men appoint a Gwielo to take their jewelry to New York to be sold to help the Chinese cause. After he arrives in the city he is murdered in his hotel penthouse and his body hidden. His daughter is a friend of Nikki Porter (Lindsay) and she drags Queen into another murder case. Anna May Wong is part of the Chinese patriot group to support China. Very much as she was in real life. Both this film and the first Master Detective are or at least were available on YouTube though not in the greatest quality.

Ellery Queen and the Perfect Crime (1941) – 5.0



I am probably being generous giving this a 2.5 rating. It is a sloppy film with some mediocre slapstick comedy and a solution that comes out of the blue and has nothing to do with Queen solving it. It is like they ran out of time and budget and just came up with an ending that allowed them to finish the film. Any time a monkey gets too much screen time is always a bad sign that they don't have much of a script. But I enjoy Ralph Bellamy in pretty much everything.

 

He did affable well and nearly all his characters are easy going ah shucks kind of guys who rarely get the girl. He was coming off the classic His Girl Friday where he loses the girl to Cary Grant. But then a lot of guys could say that. Even when he was the bad guy, he was affable. An affable killer in one film I saw recently. Born in Chicago in 1904 he tried his hand at all sorts of jobs and careers with none of them working out till he found his way into theater and then was invited by United Artists to Hollywood. He ended up at Columbia. In A pictures he didn't get the male lead often but he did ok in B films. For these ones he was paid $25,000 a film which in those days was honey and toast.

 

He said the films took about 10 days each - which is easy to believe - and when asked to talk about them years later he said why. No one liked them. And they are not held in great esteem. For good reason. Even I can't give most of them more than a mild ok. But Bellamy and Margaret Lindsay as his secretary Nikki Porter who always seem to be on the verge of consummating something but never do are fun to watch. And throw in Charley Grapewin (Grandpa Joad in Grapes of Wrath and Uncle Henry in the Wizard of Oz) and his sergeant James Burke. Very formulaic but so what. This one also adds a little class with H.B. Warner, Spring Byington and Douglass Dumbrille.

 

A money manager (Dumbrille) gets out of a stock - even shorts it - when he realizes it is about to become worthless - but tells his client (H.B Warner) that all is good. That client and others lose all they have  - warning, don't put all your money in one stock - and Dumbrille ends up dead with his son and Warner as the two main suspects. Nikki is sure it was the monkey. I wish it was. Queen doesn't do much detecting and the killer literally falls into his hands or into the pool. Very weak.I am probably being generous giving this a 2.5 rating. It is a sloppy film with some mediocre slapstick comedy and a solution that comes out of the blue and has nothing to do with Queen solving it. It is like they ran out of time and budget and just came up with an ending that allowed them to finish the film. Any time a monkey gets too much screen time is always a bad sign that they don't have much of a script. But I enjoy Ralph Bellamy in pretty much everything.

 

He did affable well and nearly all his characters are easy going ah shucks kind of guys who rarely get the girl. He was coming off the classic His Girl Friday where he loses the girl to Cary Grant. But then a lot of guys could say that. Even when he was the bad guy, he was affable. An affable killer in one film I saw recently. Born in Chicago in 1904 he tried his hand at all sorts of jobs and careers with none of them working out till he found his way into theater and then was invited by United Artists to Hollywood. He ended up at Columbia. In A pictures he didn't get the male lead often but he did ok in B films. For these ones he was paid $25,000 a film which in those days was honey and toast.

 

He said the films took about 10 days each - which is easy to believe - and when asked to talk about them years later he said why. No one liked them. And they are not held in great esteem. For good reason. Even I can't give most of them more than a mild ok. But Bellamy and Margaret Lindsay as his secretary Nikki Porter who always seem to be on the verge of consummating something but never do are fun to watch. And throw in Charley Grapewin (Grandpa Joad in Grapes of Wrath and Uncle Henry in the Wizard of Oz) and his sergeant James Burke. Very formulaic but so what. This one also adds a little class with H.B. Warner, Spring Byington and Douglass Dumbrille.

 

A money manager (Dumbrille) gets out of a stock - even shorts it - when he realizes it is about to become worthless - but tells his client (H.B Warner) that all is good. That client and others lose all they have  - warning, don't put all your money in one stock - and Dumbrille ends up dead with his son and Warner as the two main suspects. Nikki is sure it was the monkey. I wish it was. Queen doesn't do much detecting and the killer literally falls into his hands or into the pool. Very weak.

Ellery Queen and the Murder Ring (1941) – 6.0



If any actor is associated with Ellery Queen other than Jim Hutton with the TV show, it is probably Ralph Bellamy who was the detective in four films. Pretty amazing to think it is the same actor who was in Pretty Woman fifty years later. One of the near great ones from that era. I like his take on Queen - serious when everything else around him is in chaos. He has a good relationship with his female assistant Nikki Porter played by Margaret Lindsay in seven films - four with Bellamy and then three with William Gargan. It is flirtatious but far from any form of sexual harassment that would get him into trouble today.

 
This is an enjoyable film (even with the awful copy on Youtube) but it is way more comedy than mystery. But decent comedy. Much of it feels like a screwball comedy of mistaken hospital beds and bodies under sheets. There is a murder there - in fact a few of them - but it feels like much of it was running around the hospital like maniacs. Not Queen so much but everyone else. A wealthy old lady with a dysfunctional family that wants her dead has Bellamy go under cover as a patient to investigate the administrator (George Zucco) of a hospital she owns. She smells something fishy going on. Then her car is run off the road and she ends up in the hospital and is soon murdered. Lots of suspects, lots of motives - your guess is as good as mine. And in a little twist, Porter solves it before Queen does.

A Close Call for Ellery Queen (1942) - 6.0

 

After Ralph Bellamy portrayed novelist/detective Ellery Queen for four films, William Gargan takes over the role for the next three films. Bellamy wasn't all that satisfied with his career at Columbia and went over to Universal for a number of films - The Wolf Man and the Ghost of Frankenstein among them. These Gargan films are solid B films that are fairly generic. Gargan (from Brooklyn) is an actor you will run into a lot if you troll the B films of the 1930's and 1940's with his gruff persona and square jawed good looks.

 

It seems the filmmakers - James Hogan directed six from this series after finishing up with Bulldog Drummond - tried to smooth the transition of leads by handing the film over to Margaret Lindsay as Nikki Porter, intrepid secretary. She always got nearly the same billing as Bellamy - and she steals this film from under Gargan's nose. More Lindsay is always a good thing. Gargan is a solid stolid presence but he doesn't bring a lot of charm to his role. And the scriptwriters seem to be getting lazier as he doesn't even really follow clues to solve the crime. It just sort of happens by osmosis.

 

Queen is brought into the case when the private secretary of a wealthy man (Ralph Morgan) asks him to look into why his employer seems so fearful of two men staying with him. This turns out to have nothing much to do with the real plot. The wealthy man is looking for his French daughter who he has not seen since birth. Circumstances that make little sense have Porter impersonating her with a lovely French accent which passes fine unless someone speaks the real thing. A coughing fit works then. The real daughter shows up, murders take place and confusion is well in hand. Way more comedy than sleuthing going on here. But still not bad.

A Desperate Chance for Ellery Queen (1942) – 5.5




The tagline for this film should have been "Ellery Queen Has a Shootout". In the previous films featuring Bellamy, Queen was basically a cerebral detective who had no use for guns or a good right. In one of the films Bellamy pulls out a gun, rushes into a room and trips over letting off an accidental shot. But Gargan had been around for years and had established his tough guy persona in lots of films and so they make him a tough guy in this. At least compared to Bellamy. Far from what I understand the book character is like. This script could have been written for any of the B detective series of the time other than the inclusion of Margaret Lindsay as Nikki Porter and Charley Grapewin as Queen's father. The main strength of the Bellamy films was his good chemistry with Lindsay/Porter where they constantly traded barbs but you know would rather have traded kisses. It isn't really here.

 

In this one Queen is off to San Francisco to get material for a book when a woman asks him to look for her husband (John Litel), thought dead, but seen by a friend a few weeks before. Queen and Porter set up a little trap for him that he walks into but it is more complicated than they thought. Money from a company that he worked for was embezzled for $100,000 and he is the fall guy. So he faked his death and skipped out. The real thief shows up in SF and murder is ahead. Queen has to untangle the mess which involves gangsters and guns and a femme fatale who would rip your eyes out for spare change. It moves along nicely enough but isn't something you haven't seen before.



There was one more Ellery Queen film with Gargan that sounds pretty good with WWII now well under way – Enemy Agents Meet Ellery Queen – but I have not been able to find it anywhere on the internet. Columbia decided not to renew the contract with the writers partly because they found them so troublesome. All of the film prints of those that I have seen have been of poor quality – probably taken from TV or vhs – so no one has thought it worthwhile looking for better prints and doing some cleaning up – again showing that the reputation is not exactly gangbusters.